Last night on the stage of the Miner Auditorium at the SFJAZZ Center, it was Marcus Roberts sitting at a piano and nothing else. The only amplification appeared to be for the microphone he used to announce the selections. The piano required no enhancement, making it all the more interesting, since Roberts approached many of his selections with a light touch and soft dynamics.
Those selections were seventeen in number. Eight preceded the intermission, and nine followed it. The announcement on the SFJAZZ event page, claimed that Roberts would cover “the full range of the jazz piano tradition.” That was a bit of an overstatement, but he did reach back as early as two rags by Scott Joplin and advanced to the immediate present with two movements from a suite, Romance Swingin’ the Blues, which he will be recording later this week.
All of his selections were rendered solely through the arrangements of his own interpretations. Stylistically, he has a strong preference for embellishments, abundant in both number and duration. By his own admission, his approach to embellishment owes much (but not all) to Art Tatum. He also had a tendency to rethink the original intensions of a song (since he did not have to worry about his music running into conflict with the words). As a result, he dismissed the introspective intimacy of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” in favor of a rhythmically bouncier reading, which provided a more suitable platform for his approach to embellishment in that particular song.
Ultimately, however, there was a sameness in Roberts’ approach to what was actually a very broad cross-section of material. He played as if he had a single rhetorical style. It served him well; but after a while one wished that he would take a different approach to what he was playing, whether it was the nostalgia of “I Wish You Love” (the English version of the French song composed by Léo Chauliac and Charles Trenet) or the studied disregard for both rhythm and tonality in Jelly Roll Morton’s “Freakish.”
There was great potential for subtlety in both how Roberts played and what he chose to perform, but sadly that potential was never particularly well realized.